Thursday, July 10, 2008

The opposite of canned laughter. Digital platform musings.

Just recently the company decided to cease a digital download/casual games project, one which some time ago really did seem like total common sense with the way things were going; i.e. digital publishing, IP retention, casual gaming, our experience and publishing position, etc. 

All at very moderate investment risk at amicable terms - which really should be the way it happens - almost too good to be true for all parties. I guess its just been a while since we canned anything so it all feels a bit weird and is ultimately more than a little disappointing. Not only for the team, but for the notion and spirit in which it was started; that we could utilise a strong position and bring other quality IP to the platforms with our experience and knowledge of the platforms.

It's a shame then that in the last couple of years the digital download model (on console at least) has been moving much more towards a smaller scale edition of the normal retail games market; with big-name IP and big-budget titles polarising and performing by far the best. Whilst XNA is still somewhat of an open door for new casual digital titles on console, it would appear to me that the other doors spoken of by the larger platforms are quietly closing.

It seems that people generally know what they like and there's a big gap between what will do very well and what will perform only moderately to a content cluster of fans. As a fairly large business operation, we need to avoid the latter and art-house creative hits whilst expanding the market, usually fail to pay the bills. Seems that people want a good value meal rather than nouvelle cuisine - and that's understandable. 

We're fortunate in a way that we've got a couple of new digital titles up our sleeves which we believe will fit into the more positive bracket - something I keep chipping on about and I guess will be known at some point during the year if we can keep a lid on it post July (when they get shown, albeit behind closed doors).

But back to the postponed title, a relatively straight forward casual game made with a small team we've known years - and people we like a lot. It's a shame it had to happen but ultimately it was one of those games that we felt just wasn't going to be the hit we needed it to be to justify a lot of effort getting it onto consoles. It doesn't matter which platform, if you don't get that early buzz that there's something really special going on, it generally means there isn't.

There's not much point dwelling on the game itself, it's perfectly playable and fun casual PC game (thats at least as good if not better than a lot of XBLA titles to be fair!) but whatever it needed, we couldn't make that leap to make it really stand out and grab attention in a market which we know will be full of big guns come 2009, including two of our own.

I still have massive belief in the future of the digital title and I know that we'll have a lot to offer (I'm very excited about 2009) - we're not wholly reliant on digital titles just yet but I think there will come a time when its all we work on, when retail, distribution and all that goes with that is just a memory. I don't actually think it's that long away, certainly under 10yrs - companies are surviving on XBLA, PSN and PC Steam platforms already - give it a few more years and many more will too., as well as online subscription models, advertising revenue etc.

Another thing, if anything, I feel that digital platform games are more honest, there's less pretense in terms of trying to validate the retail price - which is generally inflated due to retail, distribution & marketing margins, with the developers largely never seeing royalties past the costs provided to make the game. 

I also like (especially on 360) that you live or die by your trial version. If forces (or at least it bloody should) the team to deliver something that makes an immediate impact that meets or exceeds player's expectations right from the off. If you fail to do that, you generally lose a sale - that's not something you can do when you handover your £40-50 blindly in HMV or wherever. I also like that for the main part, developers are working from the same ground rules with the same size-footprint, it forces you to consider the content - something that very rarely occurs in full retail games where again, it's almost a case of retail price justification.

We're already starting to see digital titles with increased production and increased cost - the best example perhaps being the Penny Arcade title on Live Arcade which is episodic and at $20 for the first episode. I'm not sure how well it's sold but despite pretty good presentation, it is a fairly confused game (to me, at least) and I think to live and breathe in that marketplace, you have to be very straightforward. Game content need not be casual, but the approach from the user  regarding a purchase may well be - so you have to bear that in mind - the Penny Arcade game seemd to be at odds with itself, wondering what exactly it was trying to be (part nice looking 2d interactive comic, part RPG). 

With so many people vying to get on the platform, any game that's on there should work really hard to please its trialists, to tantalise them to buy the full game, to hook them in. That relatively few do - that people tend to be wary of new titles and trust the brands they know says everything you need to know. If you're making a game that's relative innovative, you really have got your work cut out to appeal to the masses in 1 minute flat - if you don't do your homework then you're stuffed. And that goes for apparently churned out titles (I've seen a few on there) - if the company doesn't really care that's making it (Indie game stuff is usually very, if not overly cared for) then why should the consumer?

For the record, here are the XBLA titles (other than our own) that get played the most in our house;

Carcassonne
Cloning Clyde (Harry)
Geo Wars
Feeding Frenzy (Harry)
N+ (Harry again)
Marble Wotsit (Harry, I forget the name)

and on PSN;

Super Stardust (I'm still sad we didn't eventually publish this - for reasons I'll discuss at some point in the future, we're on the credits at the end if you look!)
Pixeljunk Monsters (I really like this - and now talk often over Facebook to Dylan at Q! design)
Pain (I hate it, Harry can't get enough of it, despite being 9yrs too young to play it, apparently)

Wiiware;

Nothing. The wii comes out for Wiifit BMI tests and Harry's Smash Brothers Brawl. Thats about it.


1 comment:

Ben / S2K said...

The Wii is, at present, not really an ideal platform for digital distribution. I'm talking specifically about WiiWare here, rather than the exceptionally awesome Virtual Console stuff. It just doesn't have the internal storage capacity to make buying the WiiWare stuff worthwhile.

I did pick up Dr. Mario X, probably more out of brand loyalty than anything else (I already have the game on my GameBoy Advance and I haven't touched it in months), but Two Tribes' Toki Tori, which is probably the biggest game on my Wii's internal drive at the moment, is a ton of fun - a very old-school affair, almost (but not quite) reminiscent QWAK.

Actually, there's a thought - I wonder how QWAK would fare on XBLA/PSN? I know Jamie's been working on a Windows version for some time now. Hmm...